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Cooper Landing bypass plan gets mixed reviews from residents

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Shaylon Cochran/KDLL
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A proposed highway bypass around Cooper Landing may be closer to reality than at any time in the past three decades.

 

 

This section of Sterling Highway through the town has seen few upgrades since it was originally built in the 1950’s, and is no longer able to safely accommodate the large volumes of truck, and summer fishing traffic, that comes through. The plan to swing the highway north of town for 14 miles is in the final stages of a draft environmental impact statement.

People in Cooper Landing have had more than 30 years to think about what a highway around, instead of through, town would mean. And despite some important recent developments that have nudged the project closer to reality, not everyone is buying in to the idea that construction is just around the corner.

“Twenty years ago when I started Wildman’s, they said well, aren’t you afraid of the bypass? I said, I’ll be dead and buried when they build it," said Cheryle James.

Her general store on the edge of town is one of the few Cooper Landing businesses open year round. A new road would reduce traffic flow along the current path of the Sterling Highway by 70 percent.

“It’s going to decimate my business if it gets built.," James said. "They talk about mitigation. But it’s always mitigation for another federal agency. There’s no mitigation of the impact on the community itself. That’s why they were talking about doing the bike trail and stuff, to make it more of a destination for everybody.”

That was a big hang up at the meeting Tuesday. The mitigation measures are basically a tradeoff. The new road will have some less than desirable impacts in one place, so improvements will be made in another to make up for it. In this case it would mean upgrading a portion of the Iditarod historic trail near Moose Pass.

 

But instead of that, residents want more and safer access to what will become the Old Sterling Highway corridor; more places to cross the road and more access to local trails. In general, more connectivity and ways to make it easier to get through town by foot or bike.

 

Chris Degernes has been involved with the various iterations of this project for some 30 years, so she’s heard the upsides and downsides to all the different proposals. She’s happy the state, at least for now, is going with the Juneau Creek route, which as the name implies, would cross Juneau Creek at roughly milepost 50.

“Is it the best thing we could do? I don’t know that there is a best thing. This is going to have impacts. It’s going to impact wildlife, it’s going to impact businesses, it’s going to impact people and their homes. But the best thing it does is it gets the majority of the traffic away from the (Kenai) river and it limits the exposure to the river to spills by some of these big tanker trucks that are traveling through the community," Degernes said.

The Juneau Creek route is the furthest from the river and would climb and descend grades of five to six percent while allowing for 55 mph traffic speeds. Cost right now is estimated at $280 million, which would likely have to be raised and spent in stages. An exact timeline is tough to pin down, but officials say the rosy outlook is a start to construction as early as 2020. Before that, though, the final environmental impact statement needs to be completed. Public comments are being accepted on that until April 16th.